Saturday, August 18, 2012

Media Ecology, The increase of Alienation, Alienation is Good, Tribal/Collectivist Culture is Bad


Outside of my coding job and family life, I've been obsessed with the McLulan construct of Media Ecology. Scroll down to the Tribal_Age/Literary_Age/Print_Age/Digital_Age, which is what I'm specifically interested in. In today's pop academic rhetoric "alienation" (the tribal era had none, and each other media era increases it) is seen as a negative and something to undo, such as through renewed emphasis on local, physically connected, committed community. I see "alienation" via media technology as fundamentally positive and empowering, without exception.

Alienation is often the negative umbrella term used to encapsulate positive capacities:

  1. The Scientist As Rebel phenomenon, in which a bright individual can break from any epistemological and ethical boundaries his local (family, friends, class, neighborhood, etc) society adheres to, and choose to accept the feedback provided by math, literacy and success/fail status of tests in the material world, valuing these more than the emotional expressions of his local human clan.

  2. Defection, the anti-thesis of Localized Solidarity. In the Tribal Age [see below] defection is easily detected due to all activities being seen by others in the tribe. There are no levers to pull in private of any great power or consequence. Whereas, for instance, in a voting democracy one can break from any solidarity and vote for the opponent, thus empowering a political trend one's local tribe or class may be against.

  3. Solidarity that is not local or within one's class. Through the time and space travel afforded by literacy, an individual can bond with an idea or command transferred in a book, or web page. Solidarity may not be the correct term here, in the case of a command all the actors who have read the command are captured by the message and directed to effect their material world. This becomes a virtual tribe in which the media is a primary member of the tribe and the people are something more ephemeral and verb-like expression plane of the media. These kinds of virtual tribes can often defeat and entirely eliminate illiterate-acoustic tribes due to the undying nature of the virtual tribe's leader (a mass produced document on paper or hard drive).

The text below is a copy of Wikipedia's Media Ecology circa August 18 2012.

Tribal Age

The first period in history that McLuhan describes is the Tribal Age, a time of community because the ear is the dominant sense organ. This is also known as an acoustic era because the senses of hearing, touch, taste, and smell were far more strongly developed than the ability to visualize. During this time, hearing was more valuable because it allowed you to be more immediately aware of your surroundings, which was extremely important for hunting during this time. Everyone hears at the same time makings listening to someone in a group a unifying act, deepening the feeling of community. In this world of surround sound, everything is more immediate, more present, and more actual fostering more passion and spontaneity. During the Tribal Age, hearing was believing. Click here to see excerpt from The Information regarding McLulan's views on tribalism/acoustic media age..

Literary age

The second stage is the Literary Stage, a time of private detachment because the eyes is a dominant sense organ; also known as the visual era. Turning sounds into visible objects radically altered the symbolic environment. Words were no longer alive and immediate, they were able to read over and over again. Hearing no longer becomes trustworthy, seeing was believing. Even though people read the same words, the act of reading is an individual act of singular focus. Tribes didn't need to come together to get information anymore. This is when the invention of the alphabet came about. During this time, when people learned to read, they became independent thinkers.

Print Age

The third stage is the Print Age, mass production of individual products due to the invention of the printing press. It gave the ability to reproduce the same text over and over again, making multiple copies. With printing came a new visual stress, the portable book. It allowed men to carry books, so men could read in privacy and isolated from others. Libraries were created to hold these books and also gave freedom to be alienated from others and from immediacy of their surroundings.

Electronic Age

Lastly, the Electronic Age, an era of instant communication and a return to an environment with simultaneous sounds and touch. It started with a device created by Samuel Morse's invention of the telegraph and lead to the telephone, the cell phone, television, internet, DVD, video games, etc. This ability to communicate instantly returned us to the tradition of sound and touch rather than sight. Being able to be in constant contact with the world becomes a nosy generation where everyone knows everyone's business and everyone's business is everyone else's. This phenomenon is called the global village. "We have seen the birth of nationalism which is the largest possible social unit. It occurred because the print media made it possible for government systems to coordinate, which facilitated homogeneous cultures. Now other nations join our nation to form a global community. Nations can easily break apart as fast as they join together like we see in case throughout the former Soviet bloc, in the developing world, or in Iraq and with Al Qaeda. Strate hopes we can find the freedom to step outside the system to understand our media environment and that we can find the discipline to systematize that knowledge and make it available to others."

The text below is an excerpt from The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick -pages 47-50

Then the vanished world of primary orality was not missed. Not until the twentieth century, amid a burgeoning of new media for communication, did the qualms and the nostalgia resurface. Marshall McLuhan, who became the most famous spokesman for the bygone oral culture, did so in the service for an argument for modernity. He hailed the new "electric age" not for its newness but for its return to the roots of human creativity. He saw it as a revival of the old orality. "We are in our century 'winding the tape backward,'" he declared, finding his metaphorical tape in one the newest information technologies. He constructed a series of polemical contrasts: the printed word vs. the spoke word; cold/hot; static/fluid; neutral/magical; impoverished/rich; regimented/creative; mechanical/organic; separatist/integrative. "The alphabet is a technology of visual fragmentation and specialism, " he wrote. It leads to "a desert of classified data". One way of framing McLuhan's critique of print would be to say that print offers only a narrow channel of communication. The channel is linear and even fragmented. By contrast, speech -in the primal case, face-to-face human intercourse, alive with gesture and touch- engages all the senses, not just hearing. If the ideal of communication is a meeting of souls, then writing is a shadow of the ideal.

That same criticism was made of other constrained channels, created by later technologies -the telegraph, the telephone, radio, and e-mail. Jonathan Miller rephrases McLuhan's argument in quasi-technical terms of information: "The larger the number of senses involved, the better the chance of transmitting a reliable copy of the sender's mental state." In the stream of words past the ear or eye, we sense not just the items one by one but their rhythms and tones, which is to say their music. We, the listner or the reader, do not hear, or read, one word at a time; we get messages in groupings small and large. Human memory being what it is, larger patrterns can be grasped in writing than in sound. The eye can glance back. McLuhan considered this damaging, or at least diminishing. "Acoustic space is organic and intergral," he said, "perceived through the simultaneous interplay of all the senses; whereas 'rational' or pictorial space is uniform, sequential and continuous and creates a closed world with none of the rich resonance of the tribal echoland." For McLuhan, the tribal echoland is Eden.

By their dependence on the spoken word for information, people were drawn together into a tribal mesh...the spoken word is more emotionally laden than the written...Audile-tactile tribal man partook of the collective unconscious, lived in a magical integral world patterned by myth and ritual, its values divine.

Up to a point maybe. Yet three centuries earlier, Thomas Hobbes, looking from a vantage where literacy was new, had taken a less rosy view. He could see the preliterate culture more clearly: "Men lived upon gross experience," he wrote. "There was no method; that is to say, no sowing nor planting of knowledge by itself, apart from the weeds and common plants of error and conjecture. " A sorry place, neither magical nor divine.

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